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Politics of Race Again Heating Up in Georgia

August 13, 1995|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — When Rep. Cynthia McKinney travels in rural Georgia, the black Atlanta Democrat says she frequently meets white people who refuse to shake her hand. Never mind that she is their congresswoman. Simply because she is black, she says, they cannot view her "as a person of worth."

For their part, at least some of McKinney's white constituents argue that she simply does not have their interests at heart.

"I don't care if she represents me if she in fact represents me, but she doesn't represent me," says Winnie McDonald, a white salesman in Monticello, in central Georgia.

Democrats, he says, are "a party of special interest groups," many of whom "don't work for a living."

Allen Haywood, a newspaper publisher in Sparta, voices a similar sentiment. McKinney "makes a point of the fact she is a black congressperson, not a congressperson."

McKinney's fate is now at the center of a battle in which the incendiary politics of race are once more burning. The fight here in Georgia, which comes to a head with a special state legislative session opening Monday, is a precursor to the emotional struggles expected to be played out across the South in the next two years as a result of June's Supreme Court decision striking down the practice of drawing district lines to maximize black voting strength.

The way in which new lines are drawn could have wide-ranging impact on minority representation in Congress, which is now at an all-time high. It also could affect the partisan balance of power in Congress and further strain relations between blacks and the white Democratic leadership.

'Playing With Fire'

Redistricting is the Democrats' "only hope" of regaining seats from the Republicans, said Charles S. Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. Whites in the South have left the Democratic Party to such an extent that the party's only chances of regaining seats in Congress is to spread out black votes to dilute Republican power in as many districts as possible, he said. The risk, however, is that the Democrats will alienate blacks, who have been among the most dependable Democratic voters.

"They're playing with fire with this thing," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

In the early 1990s, an unlikely alliance of blacks and Republicans resulted in the drawing of majority-black districts in several states, bringing about the election of an unprecedented number of African Americans to Congress. The partnership also helped fuel the Republican electoral sweep by concentrating black voters, mostly Democrats, in a small number of districts, leaving the surrounding districts overwhelmingly white and Republican.

The Supreme Court, in its June opinion, threw out McKinney's district and ruled that race could not be a primary reason for drawing district boundaries. The ruling directly affected only McKinney's district, but all sides agree it sets a precedent for districts across the region.

"The potential fallout from this is tremendous for the nation," McKinney said.

The 40-year-old first-term Democrat, who has spent the past week in Atlanta fighting for her political life, described the Supreme Court ruling as "an experiment" to see whether the Deep South is ready to embrace the biracial coalitions that will be required for blacks to win election in majority-white districts. She seemed doubtful that voters have moved beyond race as an issue. "I don't want to be the first black member of Congress to be zipped up in a body bag," she said.

Adding to the pressure state legislators are under, a lower-court panel set a hearing for Aug. 22 to consider the issue of redrawing the state's 11 congressional districts. Officials fear that if they can't agree on a plan by Aug. 22, the court might draw the lines for them.

While Gov. Zell Miller has said he expects to see "minimal" changes in the boundaries, white Democrats in the state Legislature have been licking their lips at the prospect of redrawing districts in such a way as to increase the number of Democrats who can win election--even if it means sacrificing black seats.

Various maps that have been drawn by the state's Democratic leadership have managed to provide only one congressional district with a 50% black electorate, Georgia House Majority Leader Larry Walker said Thursday. That seat belongs to Rep. John Lewis. The other two districts now served by African Americans, including McKinney's, would have black percentages "in the 40s," he said.

Divisive Choices

"You can't draw them with over 50% in all three of the districts without the land bridges and fingers that the court has said is unacceptable," Walker said. "There's absolutely no way to do it, in my opinion."

The issue has so divided the legislative black caucus that its members have been unable to agree on a new plan. There is strong support in the caucus for maintaining three protected seats but also a desire among many members to bolster other Democratic districts.

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